Animal Cruelty Is Legal (In a Laboratory)

The Rise for Animals Team, February 22, 2024

This week is “National Justice Week for Animals Week”, an annual event that encourages us to learn about “criminal cruelty” and “how we can . . . vindicate the interests of animal cruelty victims.” 

As we join in celebrating this event, we cannot help but lament that, for those of us promoting justice by opposing vivisection, this week lays bare a tragic recognition: rather than “criminal”, the cruelty inflicted upon animals inside laboratories is legal (and often paid for by us).

Consider, for example, this year’s National Justice for Animals Week “Animal Representative”: “Bella the dog”, a seven-year-old Shih Tzu who suffered “severe abuse” including “fractured ribs, broken teeth, bruising and abrasions” at the hands of her guardian. The veterinary team who treated Bella reported her abuse, leading to Bella’s removal from her guardian’s care (and adoption into a “loving” home) and her abuser’s indictment for felony aggravated animal cruelty.

Now consider that, if Bella had sustained these very same injuries inside a laboratory, our laws would not have considered this abuse (or her a “victim” for that matter). 

State animal cruelty laws, like those which saved Bella, do not apply to animals exploited inside America’s laboratories. Compounding this challenge is the absence of any actual protections enshrined in federal law. Indeed, the only federal law that addresses animal experimentation is not (and never was) intended to regulate the practice – to be sure, the Animal Welfare Act applies to less than 5% of animals used for research and, even for those to whom it applies, fails to outlaw even a single type of harm.

This means that something done to an animal outside a laboratory might constitute felony animal cruelty, while this same something done to an animal inside a laboratory is not only permissible but directly condoned and supported by authorities.

This also means that if Bella had been a “lab dog” and her abuser had been a “scientist”, what was done to her would have been perfectly legal.  

The unethical and wholly indefensible hypocrisy surrounding “this cruelty among educated intellectuals, done in the name of science”  has been a point of contention for animal advocates for centuries. Yet, our society (vis-a-vis our legal system) continues to this day to rely on a distinction without a difference, criminalizing cruelty to animals in some circumstances and not in others. Indeed, as renowned Harvard University Medical School professor Dr. Henry Bigelow observed, “aside from motives, painful vivisection differ[s] mainly from other phases of cruelty ‘in being practised [sic] by an educated class, who, having once become callous to its objectionable features, find the pursuit an interesting occupation, under the name of Science.’” 

Moreover, we have long “and increasingly [been] assured” by scientists themselves (as well as their paid advocates) that anything done “‘pour la science’ [is] acceptable behavior….” That, in the name of “discovering important things that will help humanity”, the infliction of animal cruelty “is just the price we pay”. That we can morally  “trade our suffering for other suffering of animals, creatures we deem of lesser importance.”

Only our behavior is neither acceptable, unavoidable, nor moral.

Those of us who seek true justice for other-than-human animals – and the vindication of the interests of all animal cruelty victims – understand that “immoral methods can never be used to support even the most worthy goals”; that “exploitation of animals in laboratories teaches and condones cruelty…..”; and that “[c]ruelty is a vice that should never be condoned.” 

The pursuit of justice for animals requires that we look far beyond our current legal system and what our society currently deems “criminal”. 

It requires that we invoke an inclusive, intersectional, and consistent ethic, one that values lives of all species and criminalizes harms to those lives regardless of who causes them. 

And, it requires that we continue fighting for a society in which Bella is brought to safety and her abuser is held accountable, regardless of whether she is in a home or in a lab, and regardless of whether her abuser is or is not wearing a white coat.

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